ROME, April 7 -- For nearly 300 years the Jews of Rome were confined to a squalid and disease-ridden ghetto created by papal decree. Even after the walls fell and the ghetto was slowly transformed into prime urban real estate, no Roman Catholic pope ever set foot in the Great Synagogue here -- although it was only two miles from the Vatican -- until John Paul II ordered up a phone call.
His secretary phoned Elio Toaff, then the chief rabbi of Rome, who said he was shocked at first to hear that the pope wanted to pay a visit. But on April 13, 1986, the pontiff and his entourage arrived for a historic moment.
Pope John Paul II makes the sign of the cross after slipping a note expressing contrition for Christian persecution of Jews into Jerusalem's Western Wall in 2000. The gesture was part of a high-profile campaign to soothe relations.
(Jim Hollander -- Reuters)
"He was followed by bishops, and I was followed by rabbis, and he hugged me as if I were family," recalled Toaff, now 89, speaking Tuesday afternoon at a memorial meeting for the pope, who died Saturday. "In his speech, everyone felt his love, his affection. He made a tie between Judaism and Christianity and, in doing so, he found a way to move us all."
The dramatic public gesture, the first known time since the days of Saint Peter that a pope had entered a synagogue, was one of several that John Paul made to the Jewish people in a high-profile campaign to soothe relations and put an end to the history of hostility and contempt toward Jews.
The pontiff knelt and prayed at the Nazis' Auschwitz death camp in his native Poland in 1979, established full diplomatic ties between the Vatican and Israel in 1994, and visited the Jewish state in 2000, publicly apologizing for the persecution of Jews by Catholics over the centuries, including the Holocaust, and depositing a note pleading for forgiveness in a crack in the Western Wall.
Even in death John Paul II offered one more gesture: he recalled "the rabbi of Rome," a reference to Toaff, in his will. He was one of only two living people mentioned.
These acts became emblematic of an even larger effort by a pontiff who was determined to reach out to non-Catholics and heal the wounds of centuries of holy wars, edicts and religious intolerance. John Paul sought to end the schism between the Catholic Church and Eastern Orthodoxy, make overtures to Protestant denominations and, increasingly toward the end of his life, bridge the gap between the Christian and Muslim worlds to head off a clash of civilizations that he feared and preached against.
But his most visible efforts often seemed to involve the Jews, and the leaders of Rome's small, ancient and proud Jewish community -- considered to be the oldest in the Western world -- recall these moments with great affection and admiration.
They say they have lost a special friend, someone who was unafraid to reverse the tide of the past. At the same time, some said, they are aware that the same pontiff who could appear revolutionary in reaching out to them was also a staunch traditionalist who preserved and defended much of the religious doctrine that still causes them concern.
"For me, he is two popes," said Tullia Zevi, former president of the Union of Italian Jewish Communities. "He was the man of these solemn, groundbreaking acts who was open to the rest of the world, and he was the guardian and custodian of tradition. And in a certain sense, the ambiguity of his personality is also his greatness."
The first Jews came to Rome as ambassadors and merchants about two centuries before the birth of Jesus. Later, they were joined by construction workers and prisoners of war brought by the Roman emperor Titus to help build the Colosseum. Still others came from Spain after the Jews were expelled from there in 1492.
Various of the popes who ruled the papal states, including Rome, cracked down hard on the Jews. In the 1400s, Zevi related, Jews who were required to attend Catholic religious lessons put wax in their ears in protest. During Easter season, when the pope paraded past the Jewish community, elders were required to present him with a Bible.
In 1555 Pope Paul IV ordered the Jews to be confined to the ghetto -- the word is Italian in origin -- which was a patch of unhealthy swampland near the Tiber River. Those who were allowed to leave for work during the day were required to wear yellow caps and shawls and return by nightfall, according to a guidebook issued by the Jewish Museum of Rome. Their work was confined to the clothing trade and money-lending -- Catholic doctrine banned usury as a mortal sin, but since the Jews were already considered condemned to hell, they were allowed to practice it.
When Italy was unified as a republic in 1870 and the pope's powers were confined to the Vatican, the last restrictions of ghetto life were lifted, and in 1904 the Great Synagogue was built overlooking the Tiber. But during World War II, German troops surrounded the ghetto on the night of Oct. 16, 1943. Working off lists they had seized at the synagogue, they rounded up 2,091 Jews and dispatched them to death camps. Only 16 survived.